COVID-19 has impacted every church in one way or another. Many pastors feel like they are in the dark about how they should reopen the church—if at all—and there does not seem to be much consensus on the matter. LifeWay Research decided to survey pastors across the country, and compiled their responses in order to shed some light on what different churches are doing.

Scott McConnell is Executive Director of LifeWay Research. He received a Bachelor of Science in Economics degree in Marketing and Strategic Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Scott has researched the needs and preferences of church leaders, laity, and the unchurched for LifeWay Christian Resources for over 20 years. His in-depth studies and national polls have generated relevant insights on today’s church and culture. In this interview, he shares insights gained from this research and how churches can apply it during COVID-19.

Jamie Aten: How did LifeWay Research decide on this topic?

Scott McConnell: LifeWay Research seeks to help church leaders with insights on today’s church and culture. We don’t believe research findings make decisions for leaders, but they give them a better understanding of their context to help them make informed decisions.

Clearly, COVID-19 has literally been plaguing the church and the culture this year. As leaders face this new external force, they have a lot of questions. One of pastors’ biggest questions is, “how are other churches navigating the almost fog-like state of not knowing what is right in front of you?”

LifeWay Research has conducted three short surveys of Protestant pastors to help give them and others perspective on what churches really are and are not doing. Typically, there is no need to revisit a research topic for at least a year, often several years. However, churches are changing practices almost weekly in response to the ever-changing dynamics of this pandemic.

JA: What was the focus of the study?

SM: The focus of this study was to understand if and how Protestant churches were reopening after COVID-19 closures. This was an intentionally brief survey seeking to understand when churches have met in person for worship, what precautions they are taking, and the impact of the pandemic on church finances and pastor well-being. The sampling for this survey is different than many pastor surveys on this subject. This online survey only included pastors recruited through previous phone surveys of randomly selected Protestant churches. This was a probability sample making the results representative of Protestant churches.

JA: What was discovered in the study?

SM: We found that 7 in 10 Protestant churches met in person for worship in July, but almost all of them were taking precautions to keep the congregation safe as they met. The reopening has not always been a simple journey. Some have restarted more than once, and as the coronavirus has spread in certain states, new closures have been mandated. More than three-fourths of churches that are meeting in person provide hand sanitizer or gloves, conduct extra cleaning, and have closed certain seats to increase the distance between people. In the survey, 28 percent of pastors say someone in their congregation has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 5 percent have had an attendee die from the coronavirus. While church finances have improved since earlier in the pandemic, the percentage of churches whose 2020 offerings are lower than 2019 (34 percent) is the highest that it has been since the heart of the last recession. We do not expect this to improve until the number of church attendees out of work or with reduced income improves.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in the findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

SM: In April we had seen signs that pastors were dealing with arguments within their church over how to deal with the pandemic. This survey revealed that these conflicts have grown, becoming the most common concern among pastors when sharing open-ended responses about pressure points they are facing.

JA: How might readers apply what was found to their lives during COVID-19?

SM: This has not been an easy ride for churches. Yes, churches have done an amazing job of adapting to constraints they had not faced in their lifetime, and churchgoers should give their leaders a lot of credit for adding or improving online options for worship and giving at an incredibly rapid pace. While all of us have an opinion on how it could have been done differently in our church, we need to be faster to share our thanks than our second-guesses. While we know God is at work in a pandemic (13 percent of churches have seen someone make a commitment to follow Christ since COVID-19 began), we need to be aware that Satan is at work as well. He would love nothing more than to destroy the unity within churches. Our culture has applied its political wars to how we interpret this pandemic, and it is easy for those divides to come to church with us. As believers, we must put our differences aside for the sake of Jesus Christ, the head of the church. This will mean being a little uncomfortable ourselves to help someone else in the congregation be more comfortable. It will mean not judging those who have different opinions on the pandemic.

JA: If you could encourage the Church today with a few thoughts, what would they be?

SM: Let us not get tired of doing good (Gal. 6:9). I find when life has extra restrictions and more than our share of disappointments that I easily become tired. I neglect some helpful habits. I think only of myself. Or when I think of others, it is often with a critical spirit.

Let us turn daily to our source of joy, the author of our hope and the one with limitless strength to share. In His strength, we can encourage someone today. In the faith He provides we can offer help to someone in need. As we thank Him, let this overflow in thanks to the many who are working hard to keep the essentials of life moving.

As we reminisce about what programs we used to have at church, be reminded that one of the most important aspects of many of those activities was being together. Jesus called us to follow Him in community with other believers. We may be tired of Zoom and distancing and half-empty everything. But make it a priority to participate in the new activities your church offers if it is safe for you to do so.

Yes, let us continue to long for the day when we can all gather to worship the Lord in one voice. But let us value every connection we can make in the body of Christ. Lord, please renew our strength to make the extra effort to invest in others in our congregation.

JA: What is LifeWay Research currently working on related to COVID-19 that you would like to share about?

SM: LifeWay Research is gearing up for a couple of Fall surveys on a variety of topics. For COVID-19 itself, it is honestly hard to “work ahead.” So, we continue to monitor changes to see if and when it would be helpful to get another update on aspects of the pandemic with church leaders.

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